Since 1974 at an airport in Nicosia, time has stood still. It is a stark reminder of the fighting which led to the division of Cyprus 40 years ago. But can a new initiative help start melting this frozen conflict?
George Lordos from the Bicommunal Famagusta Initiative is trying to bring the two communities together in an attempt to end the stalemate and heartache: “The first time that I visited it was a bit of shock to be honest. I have memories from my town, my home, my school. I was seven years old in 1974 and it’s a very strange situation to be trying to reconnect the threads of a childhood interrupted.”
A childhood interrupted, when, 40 years ago, George Lordos and his family fled from their house in Famagusta in Northern Cyprus.
He invited us to see his home behind the barbed wire – part of the ghost town of Varosha.
Even 40years on, George remembers certain details: “A couple of days ago we were talking about the home where I was born and my dad drew – my father is an architect – he just took out a pen and paper, a small piece of paper and he drew the whole plan of the house. And as soon as he drew the stairs, the winding stairs going up to the first floor of the house and the bedroom opposite the stairs, I said ‘That’s it, this is my bedroom’. He said, ‘That’s right. You got it’.”
Since the borders were opened 11 years ago, George has come to visit his childhood home. But like the 15,000 residents who left here in 1974, George can only look beyond the fence to a place he says is a symbol of the division of Cyprus, but now may be also a solution.
In July 1974, the Turkish army landed in the North of Cyprus. While the Greek Cypriots called it an invasion, Turkey claimed it was to protect Turkish Cypriots from a coup d’ etat aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.
In Famagusta, news of the advancing Turkish troops forced Greek Cypriots to flee as fighting intensified over the summer.
When a UN-brokered ceasefire was declared in August of ’74, the Turkish Army controlled Varosha. Forty years on, they still do.
Varosha is surrounded by barbed wire, a ghost town frozen in time. A hostage to the Cypriot conflict.
Ironically 10 years ago, when the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU ,the Greek Cypriot side voted “No” to the UN peace plan which would have returned Varosha to them.
The Greek Cypriots claimed there were not enough security and property rights guarantees. But now a new initiative to breathe life into Cyprus’ ghost town is gaining momentum.
This bicommunal plan would return it to its original owners.
It would also pave the way for a new eco-friendly city, with hotels, and opening the port of Famagusta to international trade.
Okan Dagli and Mertkan Hamit are both Turkish Cypriots who launched the initiative four years ago. Born and raised here, they say some 73 percent of Turkish Cypriots support the Famagusta Initiative.
But why now?
Okan Dagli from the Bicommunal Famagusta Initiative told euronews: “I remember the happy days of that town. When the war started I was 10 years old. I have so many memories of this city. It was a city full of life and today’s situation makes me so sad. A city without people is not possible and for 40 years we’ve lived with this city in which there are no people, just a ghost town. And this has both psychological and physical negative effects.”
Mertkan Hamit is also working for unity as as part of the Bicommunal Famagusta Initiative: “I think for the Turkish Cypriot younger generation, we are facing the consequences of being isolated, living in a divided island with a lot of disadvantages.
“So when we realised we are facing the obstacles of the status quo, then we started looking for alternatives. At the moment, the Famagusta Initiative gives us a great chance to fight for our future, because we know that if we can achieve something in Famagusta we can achieve it all over Cyprus as well.”
But despite this support, the Cyprus conflict, like Varosha, has trouble forgetting not only the emotional but also the political scars of its past.
Since 1974 and especially after 1983 when the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was declared, various rounds of negotiations have fallen short of a comprehensive settlement.
Nicosia remains the last divided capital of Europe and nowhere is this more evident than at its defunct airport inside the UN buffer zone where time has stood still. Fighting there caused not only to heavy Turkish and Greek casualties but also some 180 UN peacekeeping soldiers.
UNFICYP spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux explained: “This airport was really the site of one of the main battles, the battle for the airport in July 1974. So the Turkish forces coming from the North were trying to take what is obviously a strategic asset, this airport, which was heavily defended by the Greek Cypriot National Guard and the Greek army that works with them. And the UN was in the middle, actually the Canadian forces were based right here. So once the fighting started, a Canadian colonel, Colonel Beattie, decided to get in between the two forces, and raise the white flag, the UN flag, and the security council was asked to declare the entire airport a UN protected area which it still is today. “
Since then, the UN has acted as peacekeeper in a buffer zone which stretches 180 kilometres. But the UN also acts as mediator – a role it has played for over 40 years.
And in February 2014, there were signs of a new momentum to the peace talks when the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders gave a joint declaration at the Nicosia Airport.
Renewed geopolitical interest in Cyprus as a bastion of security in the Middle East gave hope that a settlement was within reach. But some worry the momentum is lost.
Dinos Lordos is George’s father. Before they fled in 1974, the Lordos family owned four hotels in Varosha when the seaside city was considered the St. Tropez of Cyprus.
Dinos managed to rebuild their lives in the south but, like his son, he blames the politicians on both sides of the island for holding Famagusta, and Cyprus, hostage.
He told us: “The Cyprus problem has been suffering at the hands of career politicians, politicians who have turned this into a job. And of course it’s easier to scare people, let’s not do this because it’s dangerous, than to open up the potential and possibilities that a solution would bring for everybody to share. So all of Cyprus in my opinion is hostage to the politicians and their careers. As they’re hoping from one election to the next election, they have to increase the noise of the nationalists sloganeering and here it goes.”
Just beyond the fenced-off area lies a hotel. It is a stark reminder of what Varosha once was. The hope is that one day soon Cyprus’ ghost town will be brought back to life and that both Greek and Turkish Cypriots can walk along the beaches so long deserted.